Written by our Youth Education Coordinator, Lyn Staack, as a Community Coalition for Healthy Youth Weekly Wisdom message.
When I learned that February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, my first thought was “Great, I get to be the person who ruins Valentine’s Day by talking about relationship abuse.” Since then, I have thought a lot about how to talk about dating violence in the context of the social messages, practices and complicated feelings connected with Valentine’s Day. Here is some of what I have learned:
One: It is helpful to have a reminder about how common abuse is in teen relationships.
Teen dating abuse impacts everyone, not just teens. It also affects their families, friends, classmates and teachers, teammates and coaches, coworkers and employers, even unrelated bystanders. However we measure the cost– financially, declining performance, broken relationships, physical and mental injury and trauma, lost lives — it is too much. Every abusive interaction does harm. And, teen dating violence is much more common than most people realize.
Did you know that as many as I in 3 teens, in multiple US studies over the past 10 years, said that they had experienced dating abuse? Or that teens of all genders experience all forms of dating violence including digital, verbal, physical and sexual abuse?
Two: Celebrating, modeling, and talking about respectful, safe, and healthy expressions of love is abuse prevention.
It is as important for us to know what healthy relationships look, sound, and feel like as it is for us to know how to recognize abuse in relationships. In fact, I believe that not having a clear sense of what we want makes us more vulnerable to risky decisions and manipulation.
Many unhealthy behaviors are romanticized in movies, songs, novels, social media and even our conversations with one another. It is not uncommon for people to assume that controlling or forceful behaviors are normal parts of a relationship. Jealousy and protection are seen as ways of expressing the depth of someone’s love. But intensity and possessiveness are 2 of the “10 Signs of Unhealthy Relationships” from the One Love Foundation. In addition, these tendencies are seen in the relationship warning signs from the organization Love Is Respect, including when someone:
- Expresses extreme jealousy or insecurity.
- Checks their partners phone, email, or social media accounts without their permission.
- Exhibits possessive or controlling behavior.
- Tells their partner what to wear or not wear, or who they can or cannot talk with.
Learning to recognize controlling and abusive behaviors is an important part of preventing dating violence, and lists of unhealthy behaviors are useful tools. So is teaching youth to trust their own guts, instincts and feelings– if they have a sense of what healthy loving relationships feel like. It is very difficult to know what a healthy relationship feels like if you have not had the chance to experience and practice healthy relationship skills as a child.
Three: Valentine’s Day gives us a chance to talk about respect and consent.
“BE MINE” I know that tone of voice and facial expression are lost when we stamp a message onto a Necco candy heart. Still, some of the phrases commonly seen on candy hearts and kid’s Valentines offer opportunities for us to talk about what we want to be saying and expressing.
Consent is one way to put respect into practice, and it’s a crucial part of healthy interactions in all areas of our lives, not just sexuality. Communication, respect, and honesty are the building blocks of healthy relationships, and consent reinforces all of these.
It’s never too early to start teaching consent concepts. The messages we take in as young children shape our ideas about all kinds of relationships and set the foundation for healthier relationships as children become teens and young adults. The more we talk about consent, the more comfortable it feels, and eventually, talking openly and respectfully with friends and partners becomes second nature.
It does not fit on a small candy heart, but the phrase “Will you be my Valentine?” is more clearly a question, not a demand. “Be Mine?” is a good short version. “I statements” are another respectful way to open conversation. “I want to be your Valentine. What do you say?” starts with the speaker sharing what they want and then waiting to see how the other person replies.
Of course, it is also best to talk about what it means to be someone’s “valentine” or whatever it is we are asking of them. With young kids, Valentine’s Day is primarily an expression of friendship, but can also refer to crushes and attractions — perhaps most notably early crushes on teachers. By late elementary school “be mine” may mean “be my boyfriend or girlfriend.” Ask questions about what these words mean and what different kinds of love look like.
This Valentine’s Day, I will celebrate love and the wonderfully diverse ways love is shared in different kinds of relationships. I hope you will also. After all, educating ourselves and others about healthy relationships is a pretty good way to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
Upcoming February events:
Wear Orange Day! Wearing or sharing orange on February 9 is one way to help us let teens and young adults in Tompkins County know that there are people they can turn to when they have relationship questions.
Valentine’s Day Trivia with the Alcohol & Drug Council of Tompkins County Thursday February 11 at 7pm, teens and young adults especially encouraged to join. Questions will focus on pop culture, terminology, and healthy relationship behaviors. email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For caregivers and parents of younger children, two workshop on Thursday, February 11 hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County — Tompkins Families! Melissa Pintor Carnagey, founder of Sex Positive Families. Learn more @TompkinsFamilies or by following these facebook links
What is Love?” Art Contest, New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence . Open to all individuals ages 12-20 in New York State. Contestants under 18 years of age must have parent/guardian permission to enter. There is no cost to participate. The deadline for entry submission is 9pm on Monday, February 15th. Details here
- Visual Arts (painting, sculpture, drawing, mixed media/collage)
- Literary Arts (short story/essay, poetry)
- Graphic Arts (painting, drawing, designing in digital medium, including memes)
- Performance Arts (video entries including performed skits, dance, musical performance or compositions)
Teen Yoga(ish) Session Thursday February 25 Discovering mindful practices to counter life’s pressures is an act of resilience and can help us release tensions. Join Erica, founder of Open Flow Yoga Adventure, for this yoga-inspired series. This is an introductory series, which means NO prior yoga experience is necessary. All Tompkins County teens are welcome in this supportive space to playfully and compassionately connect with their mind, body, and spirit. register here
To learn more about Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, abuse, and creating safe, healthy relationships:
- Love is Respect
- One Love Foundation
- New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence
- New York State Teen Dating Awareness and Prevention
As always, to request programs about domestic and sexual violence and abuse prevention, for teens or adults, email email@example.com.
Concerns about an unhealthy relationship or someone’s safety? Reach us through our 24 hour hotline at 607-277-5000.